The preliminary numbers on The Times paywall are in … and no-one quite knows what to make of them.
Paid Content argues that while web readership has fallen off a cliff (as expected), the modest number of ongoing subscribes offers some hope for the future.
Roy Greenslade says its early days but the numbers probably don’t add up:
I am told that iPad numbers are “jumping around” all the time.
But there has been no attempt to counter my source’s view that there has been a measure of disappointment about online-only take-up.
Many people who tried out access in the early weeks have not returned. However, it is also true to say that some daily subscribers have been impressed enough to sign up on a weekly basis.
And it is also the case that the Sunday Times‘s iPad app has yet to launch. It is hoped that this will boost figures considerably, though I have my reservations about that.
I think, once we delve further into these figures, they will support the view that News Int’s paywall experiment has, as expected, not created a sufficiently lucrative business model.
Clay Shirky argues the paywall means a retreat from broad-based newspaper-style publishing to narrowcast newsletter publishing:
One way to think of this transition is that online, the Times has stopped being a newspaper, in the sense of a generally available and omnibus account of the news of the day, broadly read in the community. Instead, it is becoming a newsletter, an outlet supported by, and speaking to, a specific and relatively coherent and compact audience. (In this case, the Times is becoming the online newsletter of the Tories, the UK’s conservative political party, read much less widely than its paper counterpart.)
Murdoch and News Corp, committed as they have been to extracting revenues from the paywall, still cannot execute in a way that does not change the nature of the organizations behind the wall. Rather than simply shifting relative subsidy from advertisers to users for an existing product, they are instead re-engineering the Times around the newsletter model, because the paywall creates newsletter economics.
As of July, non-subscribers can no longer read Times stories forwarded by colleagues or friends, nor can they read stories linked to from Facebook or Twitter. As a result, links to Times stories now rarely circulate in those media. If you are going to produce news that can’t be shared outside a particular community, you will want to recruit and retain a community that doesn’t care whether any given piece of news spreads, which means tightly interconnected readerships become the ideal ones. However, tight interconnectedness correlates inversely with audience size, making for a stark choice, rather than offering a way of preserving the status quo.
This re-engineering suggests that paywalls don’t and can’t rescue current organizational forms. They offer instead yet another transformed alternative to it. Even if paywall economics can eventually be made to work with a dramatically reduced audience, this particular referendum on the future (read: the present) of newspapers is likely to mean the end of the belief that there is any non-disruptive way to remain a going concern.